Why I’m not doing “fieldwork”

I’m approaching the end of the second year in my PhD program, and the topic of dissertation research comes up in conversation constantly.  “Are you doing any fieldwork this summer?”  “How long do you think you’ll be in the field?”  “How many field sites will you have?”  And the answer is that while I do hope I’ll be spending part of the summer in Africa, I won’t be going to “the field,” because I think that phrase reflects a lot of odd things about how researchers and development workers interact with places in the global South.  (It’s not confined to Northerners working in the South, either; I’ve met plenty of people from large cities in Africa who would use similar language about going to rural areas in their own country.)

What strikes me here is that if you’re going to the field, you have to be coming from somewhere else.  Particularly among people who work in Africa, the field is often discussed as a place of opportunity – all that data to be collected, all those programs to be run! – but also of great challenge – poor infrastructure, corruption, the risk of disease, and so forth.  Semantically, saying that you’re going to the field doesn’t just mean that you’re physically coming from another location, but also implicitly sets up that location as one which doesn’t suffer from those problems.  You’re coming from a different type of place, off in search of knowledge.  Just think about whether you would use the phrase “field visit” to describe both a trip to rural DRC and to the colonial archives or an NGO’s headquarters in Belgium.  The latter being in the North, I think most researchers or development workers wouldn’t call that “the field” even if they had to travel from another country to get there.  But functionally, what’s the difference?  You’re coming from a different place, off in search of knowledge.  (In many ways this echoes the expat vs immigrant debate.)

The problem I see here is that using “the field” like this essentializes low-income countries (and particularly rural or conflict-affected areas within them) as places that are fundamentally different to anywhere else.  They’re not places where people live or work or go on holiday like any other; they’re sites of research and development programming, because they’re poor and they have all these problems that need to be fixed.  They are defined by their poverty and its associated challenges before anything else.  And when you start conceptualizing a place primarily in terms of absence – of health, of security, of good roads – you’re likely to miss a great deal of what’s actually present.  Moreover, and perhaps more essentially, this strikes me as disrespectful.  No one wants to be seen primarily as a problem to be solved, be it in international development or in interpersonal relationships.  I think being respectful is about trying to look at people as individuals instead, with their own stories and their own inherent worth.

It’s a very small thing, to avoid saying “the field,” and obviously it doesn’t change any of the other unequal power dynamics between development workers and the intended subjects of development.  But language has power, and I think it’s important to avoid these semantic shortcuts which suggest that people in certain places are fundamentally different to those elsewhere.  So no, I’m not going to the field this summer, and I haven’t got any research subjects.  I’m going to Kinshasa, or Nairobi, or Kampala (research plans still clearly up in the air!), and I’ll be doing interviews or piloting survey questions with people who are polite enough to take time out of their work days and talk to an inquisitive foreigner.

(If you want some additional takes on the idea of the field, a number of other development bloggers have written about this recently as well.  Check out these reflections from J., Tobias Denskus, Duncan Green, and Dave Algoso, who has my favorite title of the lot – “everyone’s office is someone else’s field.”)

9 thoughts on “Why I’m not doing “fieldwork”

  1. On my CV, fieldwork includes France and Brussels, along with with Kenya (even though I currently reside in Kenya), Rwanda, and Burundi. To me, the field is the field. But that’s probably because even though my dissertation was in IR(PolSci), my chair was an anthropologist. The field of fieldwork can be next door, like it be far away. The field is the locale of primary data whether is a nice café in Lyons or a field of sorghum in Northern Rwanda.

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  2. Would be interested to know whether social researchers / anthropologists studying urban phenomena in developed countries also use the term “field research”? Am suspecting, based on the article above, that the answer is “no”, but wanted to ask rather than assume…

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  3. Wonderful post and mirrors my recent thoughts exactly. The term irks me and I would never use it with the people who I am visiting “in the field” so why should I use it elsewhere?! Development is about people, and language which is dehumanizing does not help our cause.

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  4. Hmmm…I have done “filed research”, and was never bothered about the term, guess because what it meant to me was “never” about meeting “poor” people, and also, my field research involved speaking to plenty of “rich” businesses as well, depending on the area of research (e.g. if it was trade policy research, it always involved businesses).

    Each time I went to what is termed “field” it was about going to meet “experts” who knew the practical aspects of the research I am doing, and they can teach me things I don’t know, the real ground situation and provide me with information and also new ideas and suggestions on how to deal with the situation. For example when I went to a village to talk to the villagers about the issues related to “access to safe drinking water”, to me they are the “experts” who know about the issue, the related problems better than me and even give me insights into the best ways of addressing their problem. This is a “bottom up” approach. I always treat the people I meet in the field as “experts” in an area that I do not know about, and I am talking to them to learn from them. The term never really bothered me, maybe because I had my own definition of what I do “when I go to the field”. Also, my first language is not English and I live in a developing country. Maybe that also did not make me worry about language so much, but more about what I do.

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    1. Hi Subhashini,

      Your approach sounds great! I love the idea of approaching people as experts in their subject area. I think this is very different than the way a lot of Americans approach work in low-income countries; they tend to assume that they’re the experts and the people they’re speaking to are in need of their help. Point well-taken also about ultimately focusing more on what you do than how you describe it; I think that’s quite important as well.

      Cheers,

      Rachel

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  5. Thank you for writing this post – I agree 100%. The term “the field” has bothered me for a long time, both because it has no real meaning and because it creates another unnecessary distinction between “here” and “there”.

    It’s silly that when someone who lives in DC goes to Kampala, they’re going to “the field”, but expats (and Ugandans) who live in Kampala don’t consider themselves to be living “in the field”. Similarly, going from Kampala to Gulu is going to “the field”; but to people who live in Gulu, only traveling to even smaller towns/villages is “the field”. Even going from an office in Kampala to a project at, say, a school or clinic in the city is “going to the field”. And it’s a good point that this isn’t only a Western term (or at least, isn’t any longer?) – I’ve heard local people in many countries use it in exactly the same ways.

    It’s also odd that these places are only the field if you’re going there to do research or aid work. Live in Bamako and going hiking in Dogon Country? Not the field.

    Ultimately the field is just any place that’s more rural than where one currently lives, and is closer to where a project is being implemented or where participants live/work . Why do we need a term for that? It overemphasizes our own relationship to a place, rather than allowing it to be a place that exists independently of us and that we happen to be visiting. Why can’t we just say we’re going to X country or city or district? Or that we’re visiting Y project or study site? (I think it’s because “the field” sounds much more hardcore…)

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